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    Too Late for Liberalism?

    Pope Francis’s new encyclical is a stirring call to dignity, freedom, and respect for our common humanity. Can these ideals be salvaged from the wreckage of the current world order?

    Brandon McGinley

    October 22, 2020
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    Pope Francis is a liberal. Fratelli tutti, his new encyclical letter on fraternity and social friendship, leaves no other interpretation. The pope is a liberal, however, in a sense barely recognizable today. Indeed, his infrequent uses of the word “liberal” in Fratelli tutti are almost always critical. He refers to “a liberalism that serves the economic interests of the powerful” and “individualistic liberal approaches, which view society as merely the sum of coexisting interests.” Here he sounds like Patrick Deneen or even Pat Buchanan, lamenting the way liberalism has eroded communities and identities, leaving isolated individuals vulnerable to political and economic exploitation and unable even to conceive of a common good.

    Early in the letter, Francis decries the “growing loss of the sense of history.” By this he means the academic and economic attempts to uproot younger generations from their families, communities, and traditions. The result is a society at once individualized and “massified,” mistrustful of intimacy and tenderness but eager for the false unity provided by demagoguery. The pope approvingly refers to “a people” united by culture and tradition as a “mythic category” that we abandon at the cost of the very soul of our civilization.

    But while some of today’s critics of liberalism would reject wholesale the ideological system and its historical and institutional fruits, the pope grieves over dashed hopes and broken promises. (The opening section of the first chapter, during which he cites the aims of “peace and fellowship” shared by the founders of the European Union, is called “Shattered Dreams.”) Thus Francis challenges us to acknowledge the real accomplishments of the post-World War II order, and the good, moral, Christian impulses – tolerance, dialogue, fraternity – that inspired them. And he begs us to try again.

    Francis clearly does not see the present order, which he describes with especially piercing and sometimes angry clarity, as inevitably self-destructive. Rather, he sees decline as the result of a betrayal of the weak by the powerful. This economic liberalism, which not only permits but encourages and rewards the accumulation of wealth for private and partisan ends, is what the pontiff refers to when he uses the word critically. These people – the financiers and their toadies who profit from the destruction of the communities and affinities that form identities and nurture social friendship – are the betrayers of the promise of genuine justice and peace in our time.

    The encyclical is something of a potpourri of Francis’s social teachings, cribbed from well-known sources such as Laudato si’ and Evangelii Gaudium and from more obscure addresses, all organized in one document. One of the most powerful observations in the letter, describing how we were taken in by the false promises of the financial class, comes from a forgotten homily in Skopje, North Macedonia, in 2019:

    We fed ourselves on dreams of splendor and grandeur, and ended up consuming distraction, insularity, and solitude. We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity. We looked for quick and safe results, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety. Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavor of the truly real.

    This is the replacement of everything truly human, including history and culture and virtue and love, with economic simulacra. It is the replacement of homo sapiens with homo economicus.

    Whatever we might think of the reduction of humanity to a taxonomic binomial, there is a salient contrast between the man of wisdom and the man of the economy. Francis observes that “true wisdom demands an encounter with reality,” but the inhuman economy disguises reality, even making “a direct encounter even with the fringes of reality . . . intolerable.” Thus we create our own little world of consumer preferences and like-minded acquaintances, excluding “all that we cannot control or know instantly and superficially.” This process “blocks the kind of serene reflection that could lead us to a shared wisdom.”

    Here we discover the old-fashioned liberalism that Francis urges us to attempt to reconstitute. The Holy Father envisions a free, open, tolerant, welcoming, fraternal exchange of ideas and cultures as the path to social peace based on truth. There is a vibrant, childlike faith in human reason and goodwill that imbues these sections of the encyclical – one that might strike some readers as too reminiscent of the Enlightenment or, more specifically, John Dewey and his followers who believed religiously in democratic deliberation as the best hope for human progress. Francis’s commitment to dialogue, however, is bounded by truth and charity in a way secular theories are not.

    Francis is committed to the deeply traditional notion that the church’s scope is universal, and for him that means addressing modernity in a manner as universally comprehensible as possible.

    He could not be clearer: “The solution is not relativism.” Indeed, he connects relativism to the economic and political exploitation he ceaselessly condemns: “Under the guise of tolerance, relativism ultimately leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, to be defined as they see fit.” Dewey thought that the purpose of democratic deliberation was progress, which he defined circularly as the product of democratic deliberation; Francis, inspired by the Catholic tradition’s high view of reason’s ability to grasp truth and the natural law, sees the purpose of dialogue as truth, the fruit of which is social peace.

    There is no need “to oppose the interests of society, consensus, and the reality of objective truth. These three realities can be harmonized whenever, through dialogue, people are unafraid to get to the heart of an issue,” he writes. “The intellect can investigate the reality of things through reflection, experience, and dialogue, and come to recognize in that reality, which transcends it, the basis of certain universal moral demands.”

    The next paragraph is one of the most important and potentially vexing in the encyclical. We see here a second aspect of Francis’s liberalism: He attempts, somewhat haltingly, to frame his trust in the bubbling-up of truth from free discourse as a universal – that is, in the modern context, secular – basis for politics.

    To agnostics, this foundation could prove sufficient to confer a solid and stable universal validity on basic and non-negotiable ethical principles that could serve to prevent further catastrophes. As believers, we are convinced that human nature, as the source of ethical principles, was created by God, and that ultimately it is he who gives those principles their solid foundation. This does not result in an ethical rigidity nor does it lead to the imposition of any one moral system, since fundamental and universally valid moral principles can be embodied in different practical rules. Thus, room for dialogue will always exist.

    Francis unsurprisingly places Fratelli tutti in the tradition of Pope St. John XXIII’s Pacem in terris by addressing it not just to Catholics or Christians, but to “all people of good will.” Here that principle is taken right to the precipice: Francis is not only addressing his message to modern secularists, but as far as possible using language and concepts acceptable to them. He is committed to the deeply traditional notion that the church’s scope is universal, and for him that means addressing modernity in a manner as universally comprehensible as possible, lest the church retreat into the sectarianism and partisanship he abhors.

    If this is an error, it is one of strategy and history, not of theology: I suspect that the substrate of Christian civilization that made the post-war consensus possible has been consumed, and that rapprochement with secular liberalism is no longer possible. Nostalgia for post-war dreams is, I fear, itself a dream.

    The truth is that the warm interpersonal and intercultural dialogue that Francis commends, and that we absolutely should aim for, is not sustainable based on natural virtue alone; it requires the supernatural support of grace, which our civilization has spurned. Have we been betrayed by the powerful? Yes, of course. But no amount of dialogue can overcome this on its own: The betrayal is too deep, because it begins with the betrayal of God in sin.

    Francis recognizes this, of course; it’s right in the encyclical. Everything “depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes, and lifestyles,” he writes.

    My criticism of the technocratic paradigm involves more than simply thinking that if we control its excesses everything will be fine. The bigger risk does not come from specific objects, material realities, or institutions, but from the way that they are used. It has to do with human weakness, the proclivity to selfishness that is part of what the Christian tradition refers to as “concupiscence.”

    Concupiscence, he continues, “has been present from the beginning of humanity, and has simply changed and taken on different forms down the ages, using whatever means each moment of history can provide. Concupiscence, however, can be overcome with the help of God.”

    The truth is that the warm interpersonal and intercultural dialogue that Francis commends is not sustainable based on natural virtue alone; it requires the supernatural support of grace.

    It is sin that has shattered the dreams of brotherhood that Francis mourns; it is sin that has turned the promised tools of liberation into tools of bondage; it is sin that has weaponized human diversity and identity and culture; it is sin that has built the structures of oppression and exploitation that now seem impossible to overcome. But – but! – with God’s help the primordial wound can be healed.

    In the paragraph offering dialogue as a broadly acceptable basis for politics, he includes an understated but piquant footnote: “As Christians, we also believe that God grants us his grace to enable us to act as brothers and sisters.” A kind of non-aggression pact can be pounded out based on reason alone, but the foundation of a real and sustainable civilization – fraternity – depends on grace. Francis quotes his predecessor, Benedict XVI, to precisely this effect: “reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.” And, now returning to Francis’s words, “without an openness to the Father of all, there will be no solid and stable reasons for an appeal to fraternity.”

    Fratelli tutti is the most stirring evocation of a genuine Christian liberalism that I have ever read. It’s based not on procedures and competition and compromises with concupiscence, but on charity and brotherhood and cooperation with grace. It is beautiful, a worthy and godly vision for human society.

    Its time, however, has almost certainly passed. This isn’t something to celebrate with a kind of triumphalist schadenfreude; it’s something to grieve with compassion for those who suffer due to the missed opportunity. The question before us now is how to preserve the goodness of liberalism that Francis so lovingly commends – its openness to the other, its respect for human freedom and reason, its aspirations to universal fraternity – as the liberal paradigm passes away and we consider, and work toward, a worthy successor.

    Contributed By Brandon McGinley, author Brandon McGinley

    Brandon McGinley is a writer, editor, and speaker whose work has appeared in publications such as First Things and the Catholic Herald. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and four children.

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